Small theaters’ audiences are growing, but where will they sit?

Melissa Blackall - Rose McConnell in a scene from Forum Theatre’s “Mad Forest,” directed by Michael Dove in the fall. Dove wants to support other small theaters, including through a collective.

You might call Washington’s small-theater scene D.C.’s off-off-Broadway, but Julianne Brienza, executive director of the Capital Fringe Festival, hopes you won’t.

“That’s so lame,” she says. “That’s the whole ‘D.C. wants to be New York’ thing.”

(Bill O'Leary/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Julianne Brienza founded the Capital Fringe Festival.
  • (Bill O'Leary/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Julianne Brienza founded the Capital Fringe Festival.
  • (Courtesy of Signature Theatre/ ) - Eric Schaeffer is artistic director at Signature Theatre.

(Bill O'Leary/ WASHINGTON POST ) - Julianne Brienza founded the Capital Fringe Festival.

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A snapshot of major theater venues in the Washington region
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A snapshot of major theater venues in the Washington region

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Small theaters in the District are grateful that the city doesn’t have its own version of the Great White Way, because here, nothing has to be “off” anything. Theater is theater.

“I don’t think our audiences think in terms of ‘Tonight I should see a small theater’ or a ‘big theater,’ ” says Michael Dove, artistic director of Forum Theatre. “We have audiences that go to everything.”

Still, much like in New York, Washington’s theater hierarchy is formed by real estate. Although New York’s theater district is clustered around 42nd Street and the District’s has no epicenter, Washington’s scene is determined by who has a space and who doesn’t, and how they make do nevertheless.

Washington has two tiers of small theaters: established theaters that have one or two full-time, paid staff members and the ability to procure stages, and the smaller and scrappy theaters that make their way by doing festivals and scraping together space, costumes and time.

Brienza champions the smaller theaters, many of which got their start in her festival. But for all of the other months of the year, she worries that there isn’t enough performance space for them.

“You may be thinking now, ‘I’d love to do a show in April or May,’ ” said Brienza. “Try to rent a space. It’s going to be a challenge.”

There are a few spaces small theaters can rent: H Street Playhouse, Source, Flashpoint’s Black Box and Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, to name the most popular. DC Space Finder, a Web directory of rentable artistic spaces, lists 50 places, 26 of which are suitable for performances rather than just rehearsals; in comparison, the Web’s PhillySpaceFinder offers several times that. Prices in the D.C. area range from a few hundred dollars per night to the thousands.

When those are all booked, artists have to get creative. Solas Nua, a company that performs works that reflect Irish culture, did nearly its entire 2010-11 season as site-specific works in alternative spaces: “Improbable Frequency” turned a floor of a not-yet-occupied NoMa office building into a speakeasy, password and all; “Swampoodle” was staged in the former Washington Coliseum, now a parking garage.

“Some would argue that this is the future of theater,” said D.C. playwright Gwydion Suilebhan. “It needs to become less place-beholden. It needs to move to where people are. We are going to have to figure out how to make theater more available in nontraditional spaces like malls or office-building lobbies.”

Although space is at a premium, Brienza and Suilebhan think it’s never been a better time to run a small theater. The scene is more innovative every year. He and Brienza cited Taffety Punk (for which Suilebhan is a resident playwright), Constellation, Rorschach, Dizzie Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue, Faction of Fools, No Rules Theatre Company and Pink­y Swear Productions.

“The younger theaters have a much broader menu. They’re not all ‘We’re going to do the crazy plays or musicals,’ ” says Eric Schaeffer, artistic director at Signature Theatre and director of Broadway’s “Follies.” “They’re a little bit of everything.”

Schaeffer says he tries to see small companies as often as possible to scout out new performers and designers for Signature.

“They’re trying everything and anything. It’s helping to make an exciting theater town,” he says.

Other companies that formed to play at Fringe — including Pointless Theatre, whose “The Super Spectacular Dada Adventures of Hugo Ball” won Best Experimental at Fringe this year, and Banished Productions, which produced the “Tactile Dinner Car,” a theatrical culinary experience — are looking to expand beyond the festival, says Brienza. Fringe plans to more frequently rent its Shop at Fort Fringe space near Chinatown to support small theaters.

Another way for small theater to grow is under the umbrella of a mentor, something Suilebhan hopes to see more of. Mentored by Round House Theatre, Forum has become the biggest of the small theaters in both audience and critical acclaim.

“The whole idea of them tackling ‘Angels in America,’ people would think they’re crazy. . . . They do stuff that stretches them artistically,” says Schaeffer.

“Everyone who’s interested in theater should see [Forum] plays,” said Karen Zacarias, a resident playwright at Arena Stage. “They’re an education in what’s cutting edge.”

Round House’s Silver Spring theater was looking for an artistic partner, and Dove won Forum the position. The deal allows Forum to produce three full-run shows and a few smaller events in the space each year for five years in exchange for half of the ticket sales. Forum pays no rent, and because it doesn’t have to bounce around, it’s able to take on ambitious projects, grow an audience and plan better with designers.

“It’s a really good model for larger theater companies,” says Dove. “We’re bringing in audience members who don’t go to Round House, but they go to [our shows in] the Round House space and hear about their shows. Our audience tends to be younger and more diverse.”

It may be a while before more relationships like Forum’s can emerge, though: There is a disconnect between many of the city’s largest theaters and its smallest. When The Washington Post asked the leaders of several D.C. theaters to talk about the small-theater scene, many declined because they had not seen many productions. Many are more likely to feel a kinship with similar-size theaters in other cities than smaller ones here.

“There’s more comparable situations and things that both are dealing with that they can help each other,” says Schaeffer.

But he agrees that mentoring goes a long way: “I think that the larger theaters support and embrace the younger theaters because we all came from there.”

For instance, Woolly Mammoth, which moved into a new building in 2005, began its first season in 1980 in a church hall near Metro Center. Some of the strongest small companies could be the next Woolly Mammoth in 15 years. “All of these companies have the talent and the vision and are staking out an interesting market,” says Zacarias. “It’s really an open race right now.”

Making a small theater stick around for the long haul involves “luck, vision and fortitude,” says Zacarias, a D.C. native whose plays have been produced by theaters both large and small. And although having a space to perform in is necessary, owning that space is not. Having to pay rent and operating costs can drag down a strapped budget.

 Not being responsible for property was an asset when the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs grants, federal money that supports operating costs in larger theaters, were slashed last year.  The cuts left some theaters scrambling, but because small theaters are more reliant upon earned income, they remained stable.

“The goal shouldn’t be to be an institution and have a brick-and-mortar business. It should be to produce great theater and, as a city, provide rentable space,” said Brienza. “I don’t know if D.C. is there yet.”

Of all the small theaters that have a shot at a brick-and-mortar future, Forum may be the next to achieve that goal. Dove says his long-term plans will involve supporting other small theaters in the way Round House has supported his. He envisions a theater collective and a Busboys & Poets-style restaurant.

“Rather than it being a building that we ran, I would love to be part of a space that was sort of an ongoing all-day space . . . a communal space where theater was the focus but discussion could happen,” says Dove. “A place that has a voting booth, but you can grab a drink or have a political discussion. It’s letting theater be part of a community discussion rather than a citadel.”

WHERE TO FIND SMALL THEATERS

A look at just a few offerings from the small-theater scene in D.C.:

Solas Nua What they’re about: Contemporary Irish playwrights

Where you can (usually) find them: Anywhere from a NoMa parking garage to the Black Box at Flashpoint

Constellation What they’re about: Epic stories and huge ensemble casts

Where you can (usually) find them: The Source

Taffety Punk What they’re about: Defying conventionality and keeping their productions bare-bones

Where you can (usually) find them: Lately, the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

Dizzie Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue What they’re about: Putting a rock-and-roll spin on whatever they perform

Where you can (usually) find them: Last year, they utilized the Woolly Mammoth rehearsal hall

Faction of Fools What they’re about: Classic Italian masked commedia dell’arte

Where you can (usually) find them: The Capital Fringe Festival, Flashpoint, Gallaudet University

No Rules Theatre Company What they’re about: True to their name, they have no rules

Where you can (usually) find them: H Street Playhouse

Pinky Swear Productions What they’re about: Girl-power plays that take risks

Where you can (usually) find them: The Capital Fringe Festival

Scena Theatre What they’re about: Presenting bold international works

Where you can (usually) find them: H Street Playhouse

Molotov Theatre Group What they’re about: Bringing back the bloody French tradition of Grand Guignol, or horror theater

Where you can (usually) find them: They used to perform at the Playbill Cafe, which closed in 2011

Pointless Theatre Company

What they’re about: Super-artsy puppets.

Where you can (usually) find them: The Capital Fringe Festival

Banished Productions What they’re about: Immersive interdisciplinary performances

Where you can (usually) find them: Fringe, Flashpoint, the Long View Gallery

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